The double-edged sword that is the Toronto Maple Leafs defence was on display again Thursday night.
But by the end of the Leafs’ 6-3 win over the Florida Panthers there was more than a glimmer of the promise of the youngest and perhaps most talented members of the unit after an uncertain start. Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle knows there will still be many trying moments ahead for Morgan Rielly, 19, and Jake Gardiner, 23, and many moments when goaltender Jonathan Bernier will have to atone for their mistakes, although their work over the last two periods against the Panthers flipped on that light at the end of the tunnel.
There was little sign of that when the game opened, though, as the youngsters were paired together as they have been for the last three weeks or so. Gardiner and Rielly were rooted to the ice in the second minute, giving the Panthers an easy way to take the lead on their first shot of the game.
Also in on the defensive pratfalls was veteran Cody Franson, who has confounded his coaches with a dreadful season after his play in 2013 raised everyone’s hopes for a breakthrough. He gave the puck away to let the Panthers open their first-period lead to 2-0 but quickly made amends three minutes later with a rocket from the point for his fourth goal of the season that got the Leafs moving in the right direction.
Over the next 43 minutes, as the Leafs took charge of the game, Gardiner and Rielly showed the offensive skill that at some point should turn the Leafs from a self-destructive group in their own end to a crisp transition team with a deadly counterattack. Part of that was splitting up the talented pair, though, as Carlyle reunited Franson and Gardiner, who played together last season, and matched Rielly with the defensively reliable Tim Gleason for most of the last two periods.
“That should give [Rielly] a little more freedom, knowing that type of player is back there,” Carlyle said. “I don’t think you need to worry about [Gleason] leading too many rushes, where when [Rielly] is with Jake, it’s a two-horse race to see who’s going to be the first one up the ice.”
The Leafs opened the second period in a rush with two goals in 58 seconds to take the lead and then Rielly and Gardiner started turning heads. With Gleason taking care of the back end, Rielly grew more adventurous with the puck, creating a couple of good scoring chances after weaving his way over the Florida blue line.
Gardiner did likewise, at one point controlling the puck deep in the Florida zone and firing it back to the blue line for a nice chance by Franson. Again, the kind of move you can’t teach.
Rielly produced a point in the third period when he took off from his own end, moved the puck to the Florida blue line and made a nifty pass to Nazem Kadri, who fired it over to Joffrey Lupul for a one-timer that made it 5-2 Leafs.
“We see that every day [in practice] so we kind of become immune to it when you see them stand out, some of the things they can do day-to-day on the ice,” Carlyle said. “The biggest asset they have is their skating ability.
“When you see them pick the puck up, skate the puck out of the zone , move the puck effectively, you always marvel at it. When they separate themselves in a game it has a confidence boost not only for themselves but for our hockey club.”
But as two young players still learning their position, those moments of brilliance are still broken by mistakes. The problem for Carlyle is finding the right time to reign them in.
“At this level it’s not a development league, you’re here to win,” Carlyle said. “When you don’t win there’s a lot of pressure that comes with it. So you’ve got to always weigh the two.
“We think we want to protect our younger players as much as we can and try not to put them in situations they can’t possibly have success in. We think it’s better to protect them versus throwing them to the wolves.”
However, that doesn’t mean Rielly and Gardiner are never going to be together again on the Leaf blueline.
“Those guys can expect to see some time together,” Carlyle said. “They can expect to see some time apart, too.”
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